Monday, January 10, 2011

Bette Davis in The Little Foxes -- Evil Personified

"Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines.  For our vines have tender grapes."  "Song of Solomon"

In her prime, Bette Davis played many different types of strong women, some willing to commit acts of violence from desperation, some with less than moral scruples.  However, she played true evil as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes.  First performed on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead, Regina's character was given the Davis touch and delivered to movie audiences of 1941 a woman with no redeeming qualities at all.  It is impossible to see any other actress in the role after seeing Davis.  The Goldwyn Company was able to borrow Davis from Jack Warner because he owed a gambling debt of $300,000 to Goldwyn.  When Davis found out about this, she demanded more money for her work, and got it.  That was only the beginning of difficulties for Goldwyn in making the film.  Davis and director William Wyler clashed on several points of the portrayal of Regina -- Wyler wanted Davis to play her as Bankhead did, a desperate, aging southern belle under the thumb of her evil brothers.  Davis saw the part in a different way, and eventually got her way, even to the physical appearance of Regina, which Wyler hated.  Wyler was wrong.  Davis' interpretation was brilliant, and created one of the most memorable roles of her career.  After The Little Foxes, Davis and Wyler never worked together again, so vitriolic was their relationship during filming.

Set in the early 1900's, The Little Foxes is a story of greed and moral decomposition as Regina and her brothers, Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) hatch a business scheme that will make them rich while bleeding their town dry and leaving the people at poverty-level.  The three siblings don't even love each other, much less their fellow men.  Regina is married to Horace (Herbert Marshall), a decent and caring man whom she despises, but her only source of the the money she needs to get into the deal. Horace is a very sick man with a heart condition from which he is not expected to recover.  When Horace refuses to finance the slimy business deal for Regina, she has no qualms about telling him she is waiting for him to die so she can get what she wants.  The story takes many dips and turns, and must be seen to appreciate, so you won't find any spoilers here!

Caught in the middle of this ugly family situation is Horace and Regina's daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright in her movie debut).  Alexandra is young, naive and unable to quite understand what is going on.  Her mother's behavior confuses and angers her, and she is distraught at the thought of losing her beloved father.  Her friend David Hewitt (Richard Carlson) is a savvy young newspaper reporter who knows exactly what is going on, and tries to help Alexandra grow up and accept reality.  (The part of David was not in the original play -- he was inserted into the film in order to have a sympathetic male character besides the ailing Horace.)

The other younger member of the family is Leo, brother Oscar's son (Dan Duryea), and a wormier, nastier character you will never see.  Leo is juvenile and stupid, yet just as unscrupulous as his father.  Oscar and Regina would like to see the two cousins marry to keep the money in the family, a good example of their absolute lack of love for even their own children.

In my opinion, one of the strongest performances comes from Patricia Collinge as Birdie, Oscar's pitiable wife.  Collinge brings the bullied Birdie to distressing life, a sweet woman whose life with the cold, calculating husband has been pure hell.  She is loved by everyone except her husband and son Leo, but she is too damaged to overcome the tragedy of her life.  Collinge was mainly a well known stage actress, but did a few movies, including Shadow of a Doubt and The Nun's Story.

Although Davis dominates the film, as she does most of her films, The Little Foxes is a striking piece of ensemble acting.  Along with Collinge and Herbert Marshall, the supporting players are perfectly cast.  Carl Benton Reid as the cold, humorless Oscar appeared in such films as In A Lonely Place and The Pied Piper of Hamlin, a wonderful 1957 television version with Claude Rains.  Charles Dingle as Ben is chilling as a supposedly affable, smiling villain, and he made only a few films, such as Call Me Madam and Duel in the Sun.  It is hard to believe he was in so few films; perhaps I remember him so well because of The Little Foxes, and deservedly so.  Richard Carlson was quite good as David, and did lend a more hopeful atmosphere to this bleak story, although his inclusion was more of a Hollywood desire to tone down Lillian Hellman's disturbing play.  Dan Duryea, who specialized in snivelling villains, is perfection as Leo.  Two of my favorite supporting players are Jessica Grayson and John Marriott.  Grayson as the housekeeper Addie gives a superb performance with her love for Alexandra and her horror at the development of the schemes of Regina and her brothers.  One of her lines was "There are people who eat the world" and Addie's wisdom is played well.  John Marriott plays one of the house servants as well, devoted to Horace, lending a little sweet humor to the story.

There are movie-goers who confuse a role with the real person of the actor, such as was Gene Tierney's experience after she played the wicked Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven.  Tierney was accosted by some people who told her she should be ashamed of herself.  This type of reaction is quite a compliment to an actor's performance.  I do not know if this ever happened to Bette Davis after The Little Foxes, but she is so realistic and chilling, it would not be a surprise if it had.  Davis, one of the strongest and most determined actresses in Hollywood history, plays a part that highlights her incredible talent as Regina in The Little Foxes.  She is so good that she is easy to hate, but Bette, we still love you!


  1. Becky, this is a splendid review highlighting one of Bette Davis's signature roles. Like you, I can imagine no one in the else in that part--although, interestingly, Ann Blyth played Regina in a 1948 prequel called ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST (Dan Duryea played Oscar, his FOXES character's father!). As you pointed out, the whole cast is in top form (Patricia Collinge was spotlighted as a Cafe underrated performer; see index to read more about her). I always think it's interesting when a filmmaker and performer don't get along, but make a fabulous film. Perhaps, they pushed each other to new heights. In any event, THE LITTLE FOXES is a first-rate Hollywood drama and your review did it justice!

  2. Actually, while Regina seems to agree with Horace that the Alexandra and Leo should marry, she does make it clear that she has no intention of following through. The only times where Regina shows any soft feelings are toward Alexandra, and she rightly wants her to develop more independence and spirit.
    I read the play before I ever saw the movie, and visualised the character pretty much as Davis portrayed her.
    There are scenes which are worth re-watching. My husband loved the scene where David slaps Leo - he would rewind and watch it over and over in slow motion! My mother and I loved Horace's scene on the stairway. (My husband didn't like it that we liked that so much.)
    Thanks for the nice post - reading it has put me in the mood to watch again and it's on TCM USA on Feb 2 2011 :-)
    I read that Miriam Hopkins also coveted the role. She would have been a fascinating Regina too!

  3. COMTESSA DE BLOGOVIA!!! well favorite BD film!! I absolutely love this film..from HELLMAN'S dark play to the flabby weakness of HERBERT MARSHALL..from the great acting by TERESA WRIGHT to the "slapfest" from RICHARD CARLSON!! anyone who has not seen and enjoyed this film is beyond redemption!!

  4. Though I don't have a BD favorite (the honor seems to shift among my favorites of her films), this is one of her great roles. I remember reading that author/playwright Lillian Hellman based the characters on members of her own family...must've been a lovely brood...
    As always, a great post Becky...not just your perceptive take on the film and performances, but the many details about the production.

  5. A superb and well written post, Becky. I especially like your final thought, about people who somehow confuse the actor with the character whom she (or he) has portrayed. I find that utterly fascinating and just a little frightening, particularly what happened to Gene Tierney. But, as you said, it's a tribute to a splendid performance.

  6. Thank you, everybody, for your thoughtful comments. It's hard for me to say which is my absolute favorite Bette, since my mind has always had a tie between Little Foxes and The Letter. But what the heck, I love them all!

  7. Becky, what a wonderful review on one of the great Bette Davis films. The scene in which she watches him have a heartattack is absolutly unforgettable.. I can not wait to see the film Little Foxes, again later on in the month.

  8. Great review, Becky. I love Davis in this film. This is one of her most memorable performances--it's like a bookend piece to The Letter. It is sad that this was the last film Davis and Wyler did together. She loved him very much (she once said he was the love of her life), and to think that her need to have everything her way cost her from ever being directed by him again is a little sad.

  9. This is a great review and a fun and informative blog! The siblings are truly unlikable and one can imagine them totally destroying the "vine" and anyone attached to it. It is extra fun to know that Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge would shine again together two years later in "Shadow of a Doubt." I was most intrigued to read about the different interpretations of Regina Giddens and respect Bette for standing her ground on her performance. Well done, Becky!

  10. A great review of a great actress in a great film. What was it about those Warner Brothers Women?

  11. It`s interesting that 75 years after the 1900 setting of "The Little Foxes", the wealthy southern mill owners began repeating the cycle of exploiting the poor/ advantageous location by outsourcing to foreign countries.
    I love Richard Carlson as David. Carlson as a young actor had an earnest, gentle sweetness which you rarely see in young men of today`s generation. Carlson was great in his 1950`s sci-fi films, but it is a shame that his lovely, endearing performances in his early films(1938-1943) are overshadowed by his status as a sci-fi film icon.

  12. I have to add that even though she is wicked, Bette Davis manages to make Regina an occasionally sympathetic character. Horace is definitely a good guy, but he displays some of the same uncaring, unfeeling attitudes that the villains of the movie do. You can tell that Regina is stung by her husband’s only addressing letters to their daughter and not her. When Horace returns home there is a scene where Regina compares herself in the mirror to her photograph as a younger woman. It’s clear she hopes he will still find her attractive, perhaps for old times’ sake. But his greeting and interactions with her are all cold and unsympathetic. Part of Regina’s scheming comes from understanding limits as a woman in Victorian society. And while her final actions are despicable, they also seem to be born of desperation.